I could not not share this precious Blog post written by Timothy Scott Bennett, author of All Of The Above and Rumi’s Field, and author, director and editor of the documentary A Way To Go — Life At The End Of An Empire. I found this gem as an Appendix at the end of Directing The Power of Conscious Feelings, by Clinton Callahan. A part of me, halfway through the article, just wanted to stop reading (the little voices saying “It’s too long”, “I’m busy”, “I’m tired of reading about the collapse of things”, bla bla bla). If it happens to you, my proposal: stay awake. Push through. Read the whole, damn, thing.
The people I see engaged in effective response have all faced into, sat with, chewed on, and stared down their fear. This does not mean they are no longer afraid. It means that they have confronted their fears and found themselves more than a match for them. It means they have found their power to respond even when afraid, which is the definition of courage. They are still standing in the headlights, for there is no real place to hide, but they are not frozen. They are readying themselves for the blow, however and whenever it comes, responding, moment by moment, intuitively, rationally, non-rationally, and with heightened awareness
Don’t be afraid to be afraid…
- Yoko Ono, Beautiful Boys
I have heard many astounding things in the four years since I began to make the documentary film What a Way to Go. The most astounding is this, which I have heard more than once, from real, living, seemingly intelligent and thoughtful people: “I refuse to be scared.”
Imagine… refusing to feel one’s feelings. As if such a thing is ever really possible. As if such a thing is even a good idea. As if such a disconnection from one’s own body and one’s essential humanity, as if this core-directed attempt at control and domination, isn’t just more of the same. It’s a bit like “I refuse to feel pain” or “I refuse to feel hunger.” I mean, right on… pain and hunger can be a real downer, dude, so like, yeah, cool, groovy, far out, but like…. um… shouldn’t you take your emaciated hand out of that fire? It’s starting to smoke.
Many great thinkers have wondered, Kurt Vonnegut amongst them, whether the hypertrophied human cerebral cortex will ultimately prove to have been a bad idea, and whether it will be soon selected against in the grand Walkabout that is evolution. My guess is that, if that should be the case, if we do go the way of the Yangtze River Dolphin or the Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus Monkey (two species which have recently gone belly up in the shallow and quickly-warming end of the gene pool), it will be because this great, gray, wrinkled jelly-mold of an organ confers upon us the dubious ability to convince ourselves that we do not feel what we feel, and that we do not think what we think. To my mind, that’s about as good a working definition of insanity as we’re ever going to get.
“I refuse to feel scared.” Could we ask for a more marvelous statement of willful denial than that?
It’s understandable, of course. We live in a culture, and a system of governance and economy and production, that uses fear to control us. Just as it uses violence. Just as it uses power. And so, in the realms of power and violence and fear, we are left to stumble about at our most crazed and confused. Chafing under the dominating jackboot of the mortgage payment, the television commercial, the IRS form and our next employee review (what, did you think all dominating jackboots came hobnailed?), we seek to distance ourselves from any and all participation in such basic human animal responses as fear in the face of danger, or protection and defense in the face of attack: “Those bastards use fear and power to control us, goddamnit! No way am I going to let them make me be afraid!” In an attempt to “not become the enemy”, we wrap ourselves in cloaks of noble courage and righteous pacifism and hope that these thin fabrics will protect us.
And why not? They HAVE protected us. If we’re rich, that is, or at least middle class. If we’re white. If we’re male. If we’re educated. If we’re first world. If we’re well-employed. Here in the Insulated States of America, much of our violence and power and fear, at least of the hob-nailed sort, has been outsourced, offshored and externalized so as not to upset us while we eat (bad for the digestion, you know). We on the top have been spared the most brutal and overt consequences of our actions for so long now that we have forgotten that there are any. We close our eyes and click our heels and zip up our NO FEAR hoodies and we’re good to go, confident that all that wishin’ and hopin’ will work today just like it worked yesterday.
Which is, of course, why Peak Oil whacks us so devastatingly upside the head. Because when we begin to look closely at the situation, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that wishin’ and hopin’ are about to go the way of the Yangtze River Dolphin and the Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus Monkey in terms of effective life strategies.
It burns, doesn’t it? It galls and vexes and maddens. I mean, isn’t this what we spent ten thousand years trying to control? Haven’t we worked long hours for low pay killing off everything we could that might chase us or bite us or poison us or eat us or claw us or irritate us or scare us or make us feel all creepy and oogly inside? Didn’t we arrange things so that we could know where our next meal is coming from, and where our warm bed will be at the end of the day? Aren’t we, by virtue of our millennia of effort, and by virtue of our exalted position at the very tip-top of the Great Chain of Being, actually and in no uncertain terms ENTITLED to not feel fear?
Well, sorry, no, we’re not. We can’t have that. First, because that Great Chain is a load of horseshit (my apologies to horseshit, which, composted, can be really great for your garden), and second because our delusional attempts to control something as huge and complex and chaotic and self-directing and autonomous and sacred as THE WHOLE WORLD have succeeded only in pissing her off, and, as that great mallrat-t-shirt says, “When Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”. Knock knock. Who’s there? Climate change. Oh fuck.
Some people, cognizant of how silly it sounds to actually deny their own feelings, will tweak things a bit, saying, instead of “I refuse to be scared”, something like “I refuse to live in fear,” meaning, I think, pretty much the same thing (though now avowed as an actual policy), but sounding much better. That this is said with high nobility of purpose and the best of intentions does not surprise me, for we are nothing if not well-intentioned. That it’s said with a straight face astounds me. Like… um… wouldn’t the only reason to actually “live in fear” be if there were something in our lives that was ongoingly frightening and threatening? And… I’m embarrassed to have to write this… if there’s something ongoingly frightening and threatening in our lives, don’t we actually want to know about it, and maybe, the gods forbid, respond? Isn’t that what fear is for?
Maybe that’s not totally fair. Maybe it is. At some point, we have to do the work of teasing apart a healthy and useful feeling of fear from an unhealthy and useless feeling of worry, of fear mired in molasses and J-B Weld, which can be both debilitating and paralyzing. Perhaps it’s the difference between a creative response and a reaction. Fear has an in-the-moment quality to it, as a response to an immediate stimulus, and the possibility of openness and creativity exists therein. Worry has a long-term gnawing quality to it, as if fear has taken up a dwelling-place in our hearts, with plans to stay and eat all our potato chips, and there’s nothing we can do to get rid of it.
We point to that ol’ deer-in-the-headlights as an example of the paralyzing effect of fear. Well, let’s think about deer for a second. I’ve met up with many of these “venisons of the deep” in my day, walking through the woods. When they hear me coming, they respond by running away. I’ve yet to have one stand there and let me walk up and pet it. Given the traditional choices afforded us animals, and knowing that fighting is probably riskier and may take more energy, and seeing an obvious escape route, the deer flees. Of course. Easy as pie. Deer ain’t dumb.
But when I approach a deer encased in two tons of metal and glass and fine Corinthian leather, sometimes the deer takes the third option, the option that remains when fighting won’t work and there isn’t time to flee, or a place to flee to: it freezes. Not a bad strategy as a last resort, given the physiology of vision and the instincts of predators, but fairly useless against a Ford F-350 Super Duty diesel, or even a Toyota Prius. What works in the evolved world of lions and tigers and deers fails in the invented world of traffic and tramways and trucks. An oncoming pickup falls so far outside the traditional purview of a white-tailed deer that her first and most effective fear responses break down. Fight and flight appear to be out of the question and, unfortunately in this case, freeze doesn’t stand much of a chance. Traffic and tramways and trucks. Oh my.
This, I think, is what some people are pointing to when they say they “refuse to live in fear.” They look at oil and climate and environmental meltdown and mass extinction and overshoot and economic and political insanity and they sense that, if things are really this dire, there’s no real way to effectively fight it (as in solving it… as in keeping this system going… as in SOL, dude… ), no clear place to which they might flee for safety (where could we go where they don’t hate us?…hmmm….), and they rightly surmise that freezing, in the face of something this huge, will probably not work either. What to do, what to do? There IS an ongoingly frightening and threatening presence in our lives. The coming storms lie so far outside of our purview that our traditional fear responses break down. We already know what usually happens to the deer. And being frozen in fear, apart from not working, really, really sucks. What to do?
I know! Let’s refuse the situation. Let’s just say no to our own reality! In fact, let’s re-write reality. Let’s do like Captain Kirk did with the Kobayashi Maru training exercise and reprogram the simulator. After all, he didn’t believe in the no-win situation, so why should we? I mean, c’mon, people! We’re Americans, aren’t we? Damn straight! Lock and load! Let’s roll!
Ahem… where were we?
When we douse out the fear, when we tamp down the embers of worry, we unwittingly, and unfortunately, choose ingrained reaction over creative response. We fail to let the fear and worry do their work, the work of alerting us, not only to the fact that we are in danger, but also that this danger is huge and new and so dire that our normal responses will not serve us.
Our culture in general (and those in power and control in particular) has used and abused fear and power and violence in order to manage our behavior and our beliefs, to sell us shit we don’t need, and to siphon off the material wealth of an entire planet. In reaction to that, rather than in creative response, we end up forced through tighter checkpoints and down narrower chutes, further and further into the pen. Reacting rather than responding IS a life lived in fear. Reaction is always constrained. It is always less free. The irony, for those who say, “I refuse to live in fear”, is that they already do, and that they probably always have. Refusing fear is a fear reaction to fear itself. (You came close, FDR, but no cigarette holder.)
There’s a way in which the fundamental heart and spirit of my film What a Way to Go can be encapsulated in one short piece of voice over: “If what we want is to stop the destruction of the life of this planet, then what we have been doing has not been working. We will have to do something else.” Something else, as in something really else, as in “now for something completely different” else. Not the same old tricks in a new shade of muddy green.
So what might that be, fellow deers? We’ve tried the Happy Chapter (TM), but that hasn’t seemed to “work” (I’m defining “work” as “somehow avoiding our headlong plunge into global mass extinction”). We’ve done the studies and written the books and convened the conferences and made the movies and, standing there in the glare of headlights, we’ve looked up at that big ol’ scary truck a’comin’, yes we have, yes we have. But then, because it’s so darned scary, and because everybody knows you can’t leave people afraid and upset, and because everybody knows that you’ve got to give people hope, man, you’ve just got to!, we’ve tacked on conclusions and chapters and benedictions and epilogues and dénouements that say, “Hey, things aren’t so bad. All we have to do is this-and-this-and-this and everything will be fine.” And the effect on us has been to put us back to sleep. I mean, if somebody has figured out the this-and-this-and-this, then surely they’re on it, right? So, I can get back to my shows, right? Cool. The truck? Oh, that. Yeah, don’t worry. There’s some guys in Colorado who have found the brake pedal.
(If only we had stopped to wonder why it is this culture never actually DOES this-and-this-and-this. Here lies Humanity: They could have saved themselves, but they really sucked at follow-up!)
We keep inching up to the edge of terror and hopelessness and despair, only to pull back and find solace in the arms of denial and false hope and slightly-less-unsustainable “green living.” Doing so hasn’t actually “worked.” So… now what? What comes next?
Remember, the truck is still coming…
I am reminded of an old children’s game we used to play in the one-room schoolhouse I attended in rural Michigan. One of us would lead and the rest would follow and we’d sit together and smack our hands on our knees and mimic the various motions and sounds as we went along. It was a hoot. Here, I’ll lead:
Coming to some fear. Coming to some fear.
Can’t go over it. Can’t go over it.
Can’t run away from it. Can’t run away from it.
Can’t go around it. Can’t go around it.
Gotta go through it. Gotta go through it.
Let’s go. Let’s go.
Smack your hands on your knees, folks. Shout out and shake these bones. We’ve got some feeling to go through! (WARNING: DO NOT TRY THIS ALONE!)
Here’s the thing: I think we all KNOW that we have to do this. We know it’s the fact that Brother Al’s movie [Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth <www.climatecrisis.net>] was so damned scary that it put Climate Change near the top of our national Honey-Do list (whether what the national Honeys are doing will actually “work” is another essay). We know that it’s the feeling that has made the difference. And we know that it’s the feeling that makes us come alive, which is why we spend $9 (plus $7.50 for popcorn and a drink) to go to a movie that will wrench our hearts and drain our tears and rouse our righteous indignation and scare the bejesus out of us.
What we don’t know is how to do this whole “feel the terror” thing without it totally undoing us, without it leaving us debilitated and paralyzed. I mean, shit, pretty much every last thing the analysts and scientists I’ve been reading for the past four years have been saying is now coming true, with this exception: IT’S UNFOLDING WAY FASTER THAN EXPECTED. Foreign investors are fleeing, petrodollars are petrified and petrodenial is running dry, bubbles are bursting and dollars are dropping and the price for a barrel of light sweet is getting downright crude. The delusional belief system (aka “the economy”, aka “the market”) is staring on in dis-belief. Oh, and climate change? Well, let’s just say that you might want to buy those new waders you’ve been looking at in the Cabelas catalogue. Today.
You know things are moving quickly when you get to be a prophet and an historian all in one lifetime…
Atomized and ruggedly individualized, riven from our tribal roots, deprived of our healing arts, numbed, dumbed [read Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto] and bummed by an insane culture, alone and without community, how for fuck’s sake are we supposed to go through our terror? And why should we? If we can’t fight, and we can’t flee, what are we to do? If our terror is keeping us frozen, how do we know that feeling it and moving through it and unfreezing it (rather than denying it) will actually give us the power to jump before the truck turns us into road-pizza?
Well, here we are at the heart of it, folks, where the rubber meets the doe, so to speak. There IS no jumping out of the way. The truck is too big. And too close. And moving too quickly for us to even have time to get a good crouch in. So… perhaps it’s time to remember that sometimes… sometimes… when deer and truck meet… the truck gets totaled. And sometimes… sometimes… the deer survives.
We’re going to have to question some deeper assumptions here. Who says we can’t take the blow? And who says deer can’t protect themselves from attack? Who says we can’t find effective responses that will give us a better chance of surviving the impact? And who says we can’t align with the forces already in motion to help the death machine die with more dignity, and less destruction, than it otherwise will? Who says?
Ah, we poor Average Americans (TM). We’ve been bought off just like the Canarsies were before us (supposedly). But instead of the legendary “$24 worth of beads and trinkets”, we got iPhones and plasma TVs and hot and cold running water and The Sopranos and Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast. We’re so much smarter than those silly Indians, aren’t we? Look what we got! And all it cost us was… well… our very souls, not to mention the health of an entire planet, which is, technically speaking, bigger than Manhattan.
We seem to have so much to lose (as long as we can continue to externalize those darn costs) that talk of taking the blow, of acting to protect ourselves and the life of this planet, scares the rest of the bejesus (that residual bejesus which has not been frightened away by horror movies) right out of us. Take the blow? I can’t take the blow; I just got these new blue jeans! Fight back? Why, they’ll put me in jail! I can’t get a signal in there! Preparing for collapse looks, to those at the top, like hard physical labor and learning to cook possum and really greasy hair and no more trips to Caribou’s. Fighting back looks like embarrassing headlines and a date with Bubba in the showers. With possum stew and jail food on the menu, the Extinction Basket with pommes frites and a Coke (TM) begins to look like an attractive option.
Pampered and purchased, it’s pretty much agreed all around that the last thing Americans are going to do is rise up and take their lives back into their own hands. On the whole, that’s probably true, at least until we’ve already lost our toys. But while masses do not seem to change minds on any sort of a time scale that will help us at this point, individual minds can and do change. People can step out of denial and get into real and effective response. You can. Yeah, I mean you. That’s why I’m sitting on my ass right now writing. Because there are people out there who are ready to look where I’m pointing. Maybe you’re one of those people.
We can take the blow. (We don’t really have much choice.) Perhaps we can even survive it. We can begin by finding our place and our people. We can start an edible forest garden and clean out some old barrels for water catchments and walk down the road and meet all of our neighbors and get together for a potluck and a meeting and talk about what’s coming. We can find a facilitator and do the feelings work we need to do, moving through the grief and the hopelessness, the fear, the anger, moving through them and beyond them, moving together, arm in arm, hand to hand, heart to heart, discovering that we are strong enough to bear such things, that we are still whole enough to not be undone by them, finding that together, we can stand and face the headlights, we can stand and hold each other as the truck hits, and finding, maybe, just maybe, that some of us are still alive after it has passed. Some of us need to do this work, because most will not. Refusing to feel their fear now, they will be forced to feel it upon impact, when the trauma is greatest, the losses so hard to bear. They will need our help.
And we can act to protect ourselves (the larger “ourselves”, which includes everybody else). We have no real idea what small groups of us can do to that truck if we stand up to it when it hits, but we can acknowledge the possibility that the truck will end up overturned in the ditch, damaged beyond repair, never to “let’s roll” again, while we manage to limp away and lick our wounds. It could happen. And since it’s possible that finding some way to deflect the truck into a ditch will “work” (and remember I’m defining “work” as “somehow avoiding our headlong plunge into global mass extinction”), then it’s worth the responding, the trying, the being, the doing. Things are going to get a bit crazy. The rules are all going to change. Stay awake. Stay aware. Stay poised. All will become clear.
The people I see engaged in effective response have all faced into, sat with, chewed on, and stared down their fear. This does not mean they are no longer afraid. It means that they have confronted their fears and found themselves more than a match for them. It means they have found their power to respond even when afraid, which is the definition of courage. They are still standing in the headlights, for there is no real place to hide, but they are not frozen. They are readying themselves for the blow, however and whenever it comes, responding, moment by moment, intuitively, rationally, non-rationally, and with heightened awareness. And they are getting prepared to play their parts in tossing that damned truck into the ditch.
It seems fair, in a way, that someone takes the blow. Not necessarily at the individual level, of course. There are many, many victims in this story. We were all born into this situation. I will not argue that any one of us in particular has a debt to pay. That’s for each of our own hearts to know.
But at the collective level, at the level of our nation, and our culture, there is a fairness here that feels deep and clear. This particular troop of clever monkeys has acted abominably. As dysfunctional (if not self-acknowledged) members of the Community of Life, as supposedly informed and qualified delegates to the great Council of All Beings, we have amends to make. Perhaps feeling the fear we’ve engendered, the pain we’ve caused, the grief we’ve created, the anger we’ve provoked, the guilt we’ve earned and the clear and soaring joy we can step into at any moment, perhaps feeling deeply is one way to begin making those amends. Feeling. Then moving into defensive and protective responses that might actually “work”. It’s sort of a cosmic you-break-it-you-buy-it situation we find ourselves in. We created this, we “civilized” ones. We broke the Laws of Life. The results belong to us. So how much do we have in our wallets? Who are we going to be?
I know my path: I’m going to finish growing up. I’m going to do whatever it takes to rejoin the community of living souls as a fully initiated adult human being. Refusing to feel one’s fear is just a dressed-up form of adolescent indestructibility, just another facet of Civilization’s millennia-long PCP frenzy. Fuck that. It’s time to grow up. I’m ready.
I’ll feel my fair share of fear and grief and anger and shame and joy, and savor the sweet delight of being alive in this amazing time. I’ll find those few people who see the truck coming, and sit with them in circle and share my heart, and my tears, and we’ll stand together and watch the truck as it nears. I’ll read the headlines, at the very least, in Carolyn Baker’s Daily News Stories, and let the fear and anger wash over me and through me, and I’ll use that fear to keep me aligned, and in response mode, with reality.
I’ll use the fear, rather than refuse it. I’ll use it to keep me awake and alive and in action. I’ll use it as an antidote to the culture that seeks always to lull me back to sleep. I’ll use it to help bring an end to that culture.
Damn, that feels good.
Bring on the truck.